Michael Brown shooting: What happened on that August day and how bad could the protests be this time following the Grand Jury decision?

Family of Michael Brown had been making repeated public appeals for calm

David Usborne
Friday 21 November 2014 23:55 GMT
Michael Brown's family attorney Anthony Gray (L) speaks during an announcement for Justice Disciple volunteers
Michael Brown's family attorney Anthony Gray (L) speaks during an announcement for Justice Disciple volunteers (Reuters)

What is the Grand Jury and what is it doing?

It is the job of grand juries to hear the details of a case from the local prosecutors office and decide whether there is sufficient evidence to file charges against a defendant and if so which ones.

In Missouri, they are made up of 12 people, supposedly representing a cross-section of society. Once empaneled a grand jury will often consider multiple cases before it is disbanded. This grand jury is 75 per cent white while the St Louis County is in fact about 70 per cent white. Ferguson, however, is roughly two thirds black.

The panel has a number of options if it wants to charge Officer Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Michael Brown. They range from second-degree involuntary manslaughter which would carry a sentence of up to four years in prison to different degrees of murder with higher levels of punishment. Or it could conclude that no charges should be filed and Officer Wilson would be absolved.

The grand jury does not have to be unanimous but can make a decision even with a 9-3 majority. If no charges are recommended all of its deliberations will remain under seal.

What actually happened on 9th August?

That is precisely what the grand jury has been trying to ascertain. In theory the proceedings are held in secret but we know a few things, including the fact that Officer Wilson testified in his own defence. Also heard was Dr Michael Baden, a former public coroner and high profile criminal expert, who carried out an autopsy on the victim on behalf of his family.

We know that Officer Wilson confronted Mr Brown and another man from the driving seat of his police cruiser telling them to stop walking down the middle of the street. Officer Wilson’s version of events, it has been reported, is that the young man lunged at him through the window of the car causing a struggle. Other witnesses, however, have spoken of the officer exiting the car and shooting the teenager as he ran away and carried on firing as he turned and raised his hands in surrender.

What made this case blow up the way it did?

While this could have happened in any number of communities all across the United States, the death of Michael Brown struck a chord first, perhaps, because it happened on the eve of his going to college. He had no criminal record either, although Officer Wilson is said to have testified that he recognised the other man who was with him as having just participated in a corner shop hold-up just minutes away.

But this became a symbol of lingering racial tensions in the United States. The dead man was black and the officer is white. It thus also spoke to deep resentment in the African American community about a long and well documented history of abuse of minorities by some police departments for example in New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles and also New York.

Ferguson itself has meanwhile become a symbol of marginalisation of blacks. Once a prosperous suburb of St Louis in recent decades it has seen a second flight wave of middle class whites to more distant suburbs and the gap filled by mostly minority families, especially blacks. Nearly all the power in the community, however, has remained in white hands. At the time of the shooting the Ferguson police department had 50 white officers and three black officers.

What is 'hands up, don't shoot'?

It is the chant adopted by many of the protestors who converged on Ferguson during the August unrest that sought to crystalise fury over police abuse and the alleged circumstances of Mr Brown’s killing. It is meant in effect to shame the police. In the weeks since a competing coalition has emerged to denounce the disorder in Ferguson and praise the police response. It’s slogan: “Pants up, Don’t Loot’.

Who are the protesters?

While the August protests saw participation by a great number of residents of Ferguson and the surrounding communities, including St Louis itself, it soon became apparent that activists had also traveled from all over the United States to take part. The authorities sought to blame some of the violence, including looting and ransacking of local business entirely on people from outside Ferguson, although there wasn’t clear evidence to back that up.

As the day has approached for the grand jury to unveil its decision in the case, it has been clear that groups from far and wide have been preparing to join the marches and protests that are certain to happen.

Will things get as bad this time as they were in August?

That is what everyone is asking. And its why local officials, the US Justice Department and even the family of Michael Brown had been making repeated public appeals for calm when the verdict comes out. One thing that night help: while steamy weather in August gave protestors little incentive to home as midnight approached – usually the hour when clashes occurred – it is cold in Missouri right now. In fact this weekend is expected to be downright miserable. Which may make the perfect moment to unveil the grand jury decision.

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